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Microbots form and flex like human muscles

11 Nov 2014

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Left to their own devices, the particles formed short chains of overlapping pairs, averaging around 50 or 60 particles to a chain. When exposed to an alternating electric field, the chains seemed to add new particles indefinitely. But the real excitement was in the way that the chains stretched.

"We want them to work like little muscles," Glotzer said. "You could imagine many of these fibres lining up with the field and producing locomotion by expanding and contracting."

While the force generated by the fibres is about 1,000 times weaker than human muscle tissue per unit area, it may be enough for microbots.

"If we can get the chains to swarm together, we can get them to lift loads, move around, do things that biological muscles do," Solomon said.

Minuscule, muscled robots may be many years away, but more immediately, the particles could enable electronics that rewire on demand.

"These chains are essentially wires, so you could assemble them into a circuit for reconfigurable electronics," said Solomon.

The team is still investigating how the phenomenon works.

"We don't fully understand why the chains extend, but we have some ideas," said Benjamin Schultz, a graduate student in Glotzer's group.

The study, appearing in the journal Nature Materials, is titled "Actuation of shape-memory colloidal fibres of Janus ellipsoids." The research was supported by the U.S. Army Research Office, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

(With inputs from Stephen Padilla)

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